It was slightly unsettling, spending a day perusing the thousands of entries placed in the “Information Wanted” classified section of the Boston Pilot. While the anchor of each brief plea was the parish and county from which each missing person originated in Ireland, the remainder of the text demonstrated the complete loss of that sense of home. The missing persons were often characterized by the itinerary of towns from which they were last known to have been. The Irish were seen in steamers from Nova Scotia to New Orleans, on their way across the continent to California or the northwest, and at every point in between. They rarely seemed to stay in one place long enough for desperate relatives’ letters to catch up with them.
Perhaps the experience, for me, was unsettling precisely because I need a sense of Place—a connection to my surroundings, an affinity with the details of those surroundings. In a way, the place where I stay, in part, makes the person I am. I am not just linked to that place, I am also created and shaped by that place.
Place is an entity that not only shapes me, but connects me to the others who are likewise being shaped by their place. We gain something in common by sharing that same Place.
When I think of Place and its role in shaping the many ancestors whose contributions to my family also, in part, make me who I am, I realize what a special role Place plays in genealogical studies.
I think of the abiding presence of a place like Perry County, Ohio, to my mother-in-law’s forebears—Catholic Alsatian refugees eventually finding their way to the interior of what was then a newly-formed state, recently converted from its designation as Northwest Territory. The many branches of her family stayed in that same county for nearly one hundred fifty years.
I think of the molding influence of a place like Prussia—that monolithic governmental machine from which my father’s grandparents and mother escaped, a place so rigid and forbidding, its refugees still clung to the fear it engendered for two full generations after being freed from its clutches. The silence that Place instilled in those it birthed was invincible—I still struggle to unlock that family’s secrets.
I think of the strong sense of family—through “no matter what”—fostered by the essence of Place in the Irish-American south side of nineteenth century Chicago, as so clearly modeled in the supportive role played by the Tully and Stevens families there. The community values, anchored by the Church, became the umbrella sheltering those transplanted families from urban forces which elsewhere seemed to tear families apart. What was there about the Place of Chicago that enabled these Irish to thrive, when the rest of the diaspora—at least as portrayed in The Search for Missing Friends—seemed to disintegrate and disappear?
Perhaps the one danger the Irish faced in leaving their homeland was that very loss of home—of Place. Whatever essence they left behind in their forced march away, it could only be retrieved when in the collective, the refugees from that homeland reassembled to recreate their sense of Place within the borders of a new land.
That is not an experience exclusive to the immigrant Irish, of course—the many Chinatowns, Little Italys, and even Little Saigons are testament to that. But for those descendants of the wandering Irish, it is quite possible those dynamics will also work in reverse: because of the lasting bond forged by a sense of Place, a trip to Ireland may indeed seem to be a journey in which we are returning home.